Its rare that defending Stanley Cup champions can proclaim having one of the deepest collections of prospects in the National Hockey League. The usual trend is: a) teams develop good prospects into NHL players b) those young stars provide quality production and overall team depth on cheap contracts c) that produces a champion. During the stretch drive, teams tend to deal prospects and high picks for that one extra player to put them over the top. Consequentially, that leaves their prospect pool bare. However, the Chicago Blackhawks took a different approach in assembling their team.
At the 2009-10 trading deadline, Chicago stood pat for the most part, their biggest move being the acquisition of Hannu Toivoven and Danny Richmond for Joe Fallon. Yet due to their much publicized cap bind, the Blackhawks had to trade defenseman Cam Barker, though it ultimately didnt end up as a loss considering how much Niklas Hjalmarsson improved upon the underachieving Barker. Fortunately, the trade allowed Chicago to obtain Kim Johnsson as well as Minnesotas first round pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, Nick Leddy. It was both this kind of dealing, combined with retaining their first round picks in every draft for the last few seasons that allowed Chicago to start building their prospect depth. They did deal their first round pick in 2010, but received an even higher first round pick on draft day by way of the Dustin Byfuglien trade with Atlanta.
This offseason, to fix some of their cap woes, Chicago obtained then-prospect Victor Stalberg along with Chris DiDomenico and Philippe Paradis from Toronto for Kris Versteeg and impending college free agent Billy Sweatt. Similarly, for Andrew Ladd, the Blackhawks acquired Atlantas second round pick in 2011 along with Ivan Vishnevskiyoriginally Dallas first rounder from 2006. In the Byfuglien tradethe most significant of the summer for the HawksChicago received Jeremy Morin, Kevin Hayes (the 24th overall pick in 2010), Justin Holl (the 54th overall pick) and other minor players, all without giving up young equity. The Hawks also received Jimmy Hayes from Toronto for a second round pick.
The loss of Versteeg, Barker and Byfuglien can be deemed significant and those kinds of players certainly dont grow on trees. Dustin has come out flying for the Thrashers with massive scoring numbersfor a defensemancombined with one of Atlantas better ES Corsis, along with a fairly high QUALCOMP (he does have a near 55% ES offensive zone starts, though). However, its with all these little dealsdone while maintaining the core players on their teamthat Chicago has established themselves well for the future with an extremely deep farm system.
Jeremy Morin falling to 45th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft surprised some scouts and myselfthis guy is a scorer and anyone whos watched him when he gets a scoring chance and lets his shot go can vouch for that. I have little doubt that Morin will one day be a top six scorer in the NHL. Kyle Beach, who may be the most talented prospect in Chicagos system, has had a slow start to his pro career this year, but hey, at least hes still good at taking penalties! Nick Leddyas a high school defenseman who wasnt a late birthdatemade a very unconventional jump to the pros after only being drafted one season ago. Chicago loved him so much that he actually played in the NHL for six games before being sent down to Rockford. People I talked to last year were up and down on Leddy at Minnesota. However, his scoring totals are misleading as he was only one point behind the highest scoring defender on the Gophers, Aaron Ness. Minnesota as a whole was a very subpar program last season, scoring only 106 goals, or 2.72 goals per game in a 3.03 goal per game conference. Its with that in mind that one can understand, when it comes to scoring statistics with the 09-10 Gophers, why they should be taken with a grain of salt. Chicago has been thrilled with Leddy and the kind of ceiling he possesses, and hes been quality so far in Rockford.
Another key piece in the Hawks system is their 2009 first rounder Dylan Olsen. On one of the nations top teams in a high end conference, Olsen has been getting big minutes for Minnesota-Duluth, and while he has not displayed the plus tools that could make him a top pairing guy, he does project to be on an NHL blueline. Olsens skating is fringe-average, but he has top four quality hands and has shown the ability to be a go-to guy offensively on the power play as a reliable distributor.
Its not just the top guys though that makes me very optimistic about the Blackhawksas while the top end is pretty good, its nothing to make someone think they could tangle with the Edmontons of the worldits prospects like Brandon Pirri and Justin Holl, two talented young players and personal favorites of mine, its Ivan Vishnevskiy, Stephen Johns, Kevin and Jimmy Hayes, Ludvig Rensfeldt, Philippe Paradis, Shawn Lalonde, Byron Froese, and Marcus Kruger that make me think Chicagos got something here.
I wasnt even a fan of picking Kevin Hayes in the first round last June, due to what I think is a lack of ceiling, but overall, Chicago has a very impressive pool of young talent and thats not even considering Jack Skille, who is now in the NHL. Combined with the fact that Kane and Toews are both in their early 20s, and Duncan Keith is only 27, theres a lot going on in Chicago that makes me think they can be good for quite a long time. Of course, it will rely somewhat on how much the more talented prospects hit and to what degree. Even then, if Chicago can churn out a couple of top six forwards, one or two top four defensemen, and a couple of role players here and there from the system as it is now, that should be enough to make a very bright future for the Blackhawks, considering the high end talent already on the big league club.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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